Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: John Heinz

Steering an established career into new directions


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John Heinz explores lakes by canoe in the summer, not a surprising pasttime for someone who has charted his own course throughout his career.

Each summer, IPR legal scholar and social scientist John Heinz heads to northern New York where he relaxes by exploring shimmering Adirondack lakes in a canoe—perhaps not a surprising activity for someone who has consistently charted his own course throughout his career.

With a BA in political science from Washington University in St. Louis in 1958 and a law degree from Yale in 1962, Heinz was faced with a choice of whether to pursue a PhD in political science—or steer in another direction altogether. 

“I thought, ‘If I become a political scientist, I’m going to be just another political scientist,’” Heinz said. “But as a law professor doing interdisciplinary work, I could be a pioneer in law and social science.”

His decision to pursue law led to a half century-long career of research, teaching, and institutional service, encompassing groundbreaking studies on the legal profession’s structure and networks; directing the American Bar Foundation; and his latest project, analyzing letters written by ordinary mid-19th century women.

“One of the nice things about being an interdisciplinary scholar,” Heinz said, “is that you can charge off in all kinds of different directions.”

Characterizing Lawyers’ Networks

Heinz is perhaps best known for Chicago Lawyers: The Social Structure of the Bar (Russell Sage Foundation and American Bar Foundation, 1982), written with the University of Chicago’s Edward Laumann. After interviewing nearly 800 Chicago lawyers, the researchers discovered that there was “a very clear line” between law firms serving corporations and those representing individuals—in terms of their profits, size, and even their employees’ religion. In 2005, their follow-up, Urban Lawyers, analyzed “tremendous” new changes to the profession—such as the rise of female lawyers. 

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John Heinz

In between publishing the two volumes, Heinz and Laumann, with Northwestern’s Robert Nelson and Washington University’s Robert Salisbury, tackled another project: Analyzing the networks of government officials, lawyers, and lobbyists in Washington D.C., which became The Hollow Core: Private Interests in National Policy Making (Harvard University Press, 1993). The title alludes to the researchers’ conclusion that people tended to be involved in only one area of policy and to have few ties to those involved in other issues, leaving a “hollow core” devoid of go-betweens.  

Heinz considers his use of social network analysis—a means of investigating social structures and relations—in this research as one of his major accomplishments. As most social scientists considered it “exotic” in the 1970s, the use of social network analysis “was, in some ways, the most innovative part [of the work], from a technique standpoint,” Heinz said.

Not just content to examine and write about institutional links, Heinz was also keen to better those institutions he served. At Northwestern, where he started teaching law in 1965, he was on, or chaired, many committees, including chairing two dean searches. At the American Bar Foundation, he oversaw its move from the University of Chicago to Northwestern while he was its executive director in the mid-1980s.

Free to Steer Ahead into Other Disciplines

While others might see their transition to emeritus status as a time to slow down, Heinz has not. He continues to keep tabs on developments in the legal profession, including the “major disruption” caused by the Great Recession. A speech on the topic that he made at Harvard Law School in 2009 became “When Law Firms Fail.” In the article, he explores how the massive layoffs in the legal profession and a rising international market for legal services promised to transform how corporate firms practice law.

Heinz is also taking the opportunity to explore his diverse interests, recently delving into a project outside his realm of expertise. He and his wife Anne, a retired political scientist, stumbled upon a trove of 19th century correspondence between a mother and her three daughters, who lived in central Illinois in the 1850s and 60s.

The letters interested Heinz for a variety of reasons—for one, the women were not wealthy or politically prominent, while “most letters that survive are written by elites”; for another, their ordinary letters provided an insider’s perspective on some of the more extraordinary events of their times, including the fight for abolition and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Heinzes have transcribed, edited, and commented on the 120 letters, and their book, [Women, Work, and Worship in Lincoln’s Country: The Dumville Family Letters,  University of Illinois Press], is set for publication in early 2016.

“It’s a completely new venture for me,” Heinz said.

"I’m a lawyer. But I’m also restless. One of the great things about IPR is that it puts you in contact with scholars in other disciplines,” Heinz said, “so that you are encouraged to pursue your ideas wherever they seem to lead you.”

John Heinz is Owen L. Coon Professor of Law Emeritus and IPR faculty emeritus.

Photo credit: Anne Heinz